Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Finding a Been-There-Done-That Broke Horse

by Laura Crum

A recent post on a popular horse blog featured the statement—“Its easy to say that a beginner needs to ride a 12 year old been-there-done-that horse. Good luck finding that one.” This statement made me roll my eyes and laugh out loud. I am one of the folks who is always advocating that beginners need to ride older been-there-done-that horses. And guess what? I do know where to find them. If said blogger would like to learn, I’m happy to share.

First off, you can’t have your heart set on twelve. Many of the horses that will fit your needs are older than that. I bought my son’s horse as a 19 year old, and Henry is still going strong at 24. The main thing you want is sound and gentle—and certain sorts of arthritic problems, such as bone spavin, can be tolerated.

There are certain “pools” of horses that offer many good older horses for beginners. One of the best is team roping horses. Now if you’re an English rider, you may think this tip won’t work for you, but you’d be wrong.

Remember we’re talking beginner horse here, or horse for an older re-rider with fear issues. We’re talking babysitter. We are not talking something that you are going to win a dressage contest on, or a hunt seat class, or a three day event. We are talking about a horse that can teach a kid to ride well enough that said kid might be able to move up to a horse that COULD be competitive at these events. But you have to learn to ride first—without getting so badly hurt or scared that you don’t want to ride any more. And this is where your older bombproof horse is invaluable.

Team roping horses are good bets for a wide variety of reasons. The biggest one is that in order to become a solid, competitive team roping horse, the horse has to be able to handle a lot. You name me another event where the horse must stand flat footed in an open space until signaled, then run as hard as he can, staying focused on the object (the steer), make a sudden turn, tolerate the whirling ropes, erratic cattle, hard jerks…etc, and then walk off (well, most of the good ones walk off). It’s a lot of adversity, and if a horse can put up with all that, there’s not much that rattles him. Now this is a generalization, of course. There are plenty of dingy team roping horses, just as there are dingy horses in all disciplines. But there is a very high proportion of unflappable bombproof horses among the older team roping horses I have known.

Also, since team roping requires that a horse run hard…etc, a team roping horse may be retired from roping if a kind-hearted owner feels he just isn’t up to this work any more—and the horse may still be quite sound enough for light riding. My son’s horse, Henry, is perfectly sound. He was retired because he was 19, not as fast as he had been, and the owner didn’t want to break him down. This scenario is not uncommon.

Team roping horses are mostly QH’s or QH types, and such horses are often pretty laid back and steady. I do not mean that all QH’s are this way. Certain lines are ridiculously flighty. But these “airhead” types are not the sort of QH’s that mostly become rope horses. Rope horses tend to HAVE to be mentally tough—or they just don’t make it.

Anyway, this is the place I would start, if I wanted to find my next been-there-done-that horse. And yes, this is exactly how I acquired Sunny and Henry, the two bombproof geldings my son and I use for trail riding. And neither horse was terribly expensive—both horses have stayed sound.

Now the fact is that I know a lot of team ropers, and if you don’t, you may be saying that its all very well for me to talk, but how is someone else supposed to find these horses? My answer would be to look for western trainers in your area and ask them if they know any team ropers. Keep asking until you get the names and contact info of some ropers. Contact them and ask if they know of any older, sound, gentle rope horses, suitable for a beginner. And if they don’t know of anything like that, can they give you contact info for someone who might. Keep on persisting in this fashion. Persistence is key.

I would not be too excited if the western trainer wanted to sell me someone’s old show horse. Not that these are never a good bet, but such would not be my first choice. I am also not very keen on buying a horse through someone who is making a commission on the deal (trainers usually are).

When looking for your “bombproof” horse, be aware that no horse is perfect. My son’s horse, Henry, is pretty close to perfect, but he is lazy and has the bad habit of persistently snatching at vegetation. My Sunny horse is genuinely bombproof—he’s also strong minded, and inclined to testing for dominance—lazy and rough gaited, too. Its best to decide before you set out horse shopping what kind of faults you’ll tolerate. I suggest being tolerant of the lazy horse if you’re looking for a babysitter.

The thing you really need to be clear about is you want a “broke” horse. This does not mean that you need a “well trained” horse. Most team roping horses are broke in the sense I mean. A “broke” horse is a horse that will do what you tell him, even under pressure. Sometimes the horse only understands pretty crude signals (this is true of many rope horses), but he stays obedient when the going gets tough (or scary, or whatever). That’s broke.

A broke horse may spook, but he’ll stop when you pull on the reins—he won’t bolt. A broke horse may crowhop playfully when he feels good, but you can pull his head up and holler at him and he’ll quit—he won’t bog his head and buck you off. A broke horse may balk if he doesn’t like the look of something, but he won’t rear or spin or bolt away. And in the end he will follow your directions, though sometimes you might have to be firm, persistent and patient. A broke horse may jig a little but he remains under control. That’s broke.

A “well trained” horse of any discipline is one who has been taught to be responsive to the aids. Such a horse gives his head, and moves easily off cues from your leg or seat. A well trained horse is (often) a pleasure to ride, but what the beginner or anxious rider NEEDS is a broke horse of a laid back temperment. Its best to keep this clearly in mind when horse shopping. Many great been-there-done-that horses, perfect for your use, are not all that well trained and respond somewhat sluggishly to the aids. But they are broke in the sense that counts (Sunny and Henry are in this category).

In general, sensitive, reactive, or hot horses are a poor choice for a beginner/anxious rider, no matter how gentle, well-trained, and broke they are. You want the calm, laid back, stoic, and (usually), somewhat lazy horse. But he has to be broke. Not just ignorant and lazy (such horses cannot be trusted to stay obedient under pressure). Thus team roping horses are a great place to start. They can’t become competitive without getting broke (in the sense I am talking about).

The other great resource when it comes to finding your older-been-there-done-that horse is horses that people have outgrown, or need to sell for various reasons (divorce, death, loss of job…etc). It sounds callous, but my uncle used to say that the first thing he did when he heard a roper had died was to call the widow and ask if she wanted to sell his horses. And the very best been-there-done-that horse of my childhood was a sorrel gelding named Tovy that uncle Todd acquired in just that way. (Tovy was the name of the departed owner).

My friend Wally recently bought a sound, gentle nine year old gelding, absolutely suitable for a beginner (and very cheap) because the owner had lost his job and was behind on the board bill. Wally didn’t actually need another horse, but both he and I figured the horse could come in handy if one of our horses got hurt.

And we bought our pony, Toby, when the neighbor girl outgrew him and moved on to a horse. I saw this pony pack the girl and her friends around for years, and when they told me he was for sale (they could only afford to maintain one equine), I jumped on it. My little boy was five years old and getting too big to ride with me on my horse. Toby was twenty and perfectly sound (and very inexpensive). And Toby taught my son to be a competent, confident rider—in two short years. Yes, Toby died of cancer at twenty-two—we only had two years with him. But he was perfectly sound the whole time and we rode him on average fours days a week. He was only sick for the last two weeks of his life. Toby gave us a HUGE gift, and if I had it to do over again, I’d do exactly the same thing.

So, look for good older horses that are being sold for a “legitimate” reason—due to no fault of their own. They are out there.

And finally, a lameness issue that is a stopper in a competitive rope horse can be not a problem in a horse used for light riding. My friend Wally’s six year old blue roan gelding, Smoky, was injured such that the vets said he would never be sound enough to be a team roping horse again. Wally gave the gentle, well trained Smoky to some friends of ours who spent a year rehabbing the horse. Smoky is now eight years old, sound at the trot on soft ground (will bob a little on rough ground on his “bad” side) and is used for walk trot work with beginning riders and short trail rides on good ground. They LOVE this horse. And he was free.

Some of you may remember that about three years ago I was trying to find a home for a rope horse that belonged to my uncle. Harley was a been-there-done-that twelve year old gelding (I’m not kidding—he really was twelve), who had suffered a suspensory tear. He’d been rehabbed and returned to rope horse work and reinjured himself. My uncle rehabbed Harley again—a year later Harley was sound and my uncle wanted to give him to a home as a light riding horse. I had a friend who was very timid and had not ridden since she was a teenager, but she wanted to “get back into horses” and she had an appropriate horse property. Harley was as solid as he could be, but he was not a complete deadhead. I wasn’t sure if it was a good fit. I put this question out on the blog and most people said to give it a try. So I did.

Three years later I am happy to say that this has been an absolutely wonderful success story. My friend went from being so timid that she wouldn’t even handle the horse without her instructor being present to someone who told me yesterday (with a grin a mile wide) that she had saddled and ridden Harley on a breezy day when he was “feeling good”, all by herself. Not only no one with her, but no one on the property at all. She said both she and the horse had a blast. How’s that for a happy ending? And contrast this to the sad stories we’ve all heard where the person buys a younger, greener horse, gets hurt or scared, and the joy in horses is diminished or gone forever. And again, Harley was free.

So, yes, dear fellow horse blogger, beginners or anxious riders do indeed need to get that older been-there-done-that horse. And those horses ARE out there and they are often very reasonably priced. More than that, many of them need that good forever home as much as the gentle rider needs their steady nature. You don’t even need good luck to find them, just persistence and a little common sense.

OK—climbing off my soapbox now. All comments on this subject are welcome.


jenj said...


I made a huge mistake buying my husband's first horse. My mistake was that I could "fix" the horse and turn him into what my husband needed, which at that time was a thoroughly solid citizen but not a deadhead. We re-homed that one and found Reddums instead, whom I first rejected for being too short. Well, he might be a midget at 14.2, but he jumps, does dressage, foxhunts, and jousts. I can throw a complete beginner on him for a trail ride, or my husband can blast around. He is an absolute gem, and in case you're wondering, he was a mountain pack horse before we got him.

I have seen FAR too many people buy horses that are way too much for them because they don't want an "old" horse. They picture themselves galloping off into the sunset, when in reality they can barely trot without holding onto the saddle. They buy a horse that's incompatible and the next thing you know, they get hurt and aren't riding any more. These are adults with checkbooks whose common sense flies out the window when they see a shiny pony. It's sad.

It'd be a great post if you can figure out how to convince these folks they need a broke horse and lessons instead of something fancy that will get them hurt! Maybe the point of your next book?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Laura, for this very insightful post! I love when you have posts about older horses....the two "loves of my life" horses I took lessons on(and leased for a time) were 18 and 20. They taught me more than I could ever hope to, and gave me so much joy. I had never thought of looking at ex-ropers as a good, solid, broke horse. The two older guys I rode before were an ex-dressage American WB, who was slightly spooky but tried his best to take care of me, and an ex-barrel racing Appy, who gave me tremendous confidence. My husband and I just bought property perfect for horses, and I am wanting two types of horses....one I can compete dressage with (This horse type can wait a bit) and a broke horse for my husband (and maybe the baby when he's much older, if possible)to ride. A broke horse would be perfect for me too, as I am having my first baby in June, and am a little afraid of getting back on a horse that needs a steady hand and leg right away,when I haven't ridden in almost a year!!

Laura Crum said...

Anon--My horse Sunny was originally a team roping heel horse. Dead broke--but not much of an athlete. A woman bought him as a beginner's dressage/jumping/trail horse, and he packed said beginner (in an English saddle naturally) for three years. By all accounts he wasn't much of a dressage horse, but he would willingly jump low jumps, and he was a GREAT trail horse. When beginner lost interest in horses, the owner/mom sold Sunny to me--and he has been a GREAT trail horse for me ever since. So I think you can take most any older, solid rope horse, slap that English saddle and snaffle bit on him, and just go to using him (at a beginning level) for dressage...etc.

jenj--Uhmmm, convincing people that they need that broke horse instead of the young/green horse they think they want and are a good enough rider to handle--not so easy. Until after they get hurt/scared. Then they are often more open to this message. I have no idea how to get them to hear it before they buy the less than suitable horse and have the bad experience. Maybe that's just the way it has to happen.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Your distinction between "broke" and "trained" horses is excellent. Yes, on reflection my favourite and safest trail horses have all been "broke" in that sense, and not particularly "trained". That's where I am now, admittely with a younger mare (8yo this aummer) but which completed a couple of seasons at a riding holiday centre.

My experiences buying trail horses in Eastern Europe actually mirror yours. The reason for sale was critical - if a farmer was retiring or emigrating then the horse might be good. If it was just "for sale" then beware. I used to buy broke light draught horses which were actually very easy to retrain for riding, and these were probably the equivalent of the roping horses that you describe.

Nowadays I would look at horses from riding holiday centres. Ideally the sort of place that dealt with experienced riders so the back and mouth are OK. Every now and again such a centre shuts down because of the economic situation. If the business folded then as likely as not the owner did look after the horses. (The places that work horses as hard as possible whilst cutting back on care tend to stay in business because their costs are lower.)

Like you and others I have seen too many people over-horsed through wanting a younger or flashier mount. These include an acquaintance seriously injured on the ground by a young lout of a horse who knocked her over and trampled her barging through a gateway. Then there are the people who buy TBs out of racing because these are young, cheap and visually impressive.

I'm not sure how prices work out in the US. In Britain a nice safe broke horse is expensive. For what I paid for my mare, I could have bought several TBs off the racetrack, or two or three of the indifferent hacks that get passed around. A friend spent even more on an older experienced horse, and he has proven very safe and sensible.

Laura Crum said...

whp--The price varies depending on circumstance. I paid quite a bit for Henry (by my standards)--but he was exactly the horse I wanted/needed and the owner knew it. Not a good bargaining position. As I pointed out in the post, sometimes such older, broke horses can be had for free--or very cheaply. Certainly they can be had for FAR less the usual price of a well trained dressage horse, or reining horse, say.

AareneX said...

I love this post for sooo many reasons. The difference between "broke" and "trained" : awesome.

I advocate shopping the STANDARDBRED (not Thoroughbred) backrow for a horse who has been-there-done-that. Standies can legally race until they are 14, and many do, and retire sound. They see variations on every d@mn thing humans can do while they are on the track...and while they may never get trained to saddle in that time, their sheer good nature and "willingness to go along with" attitude is worth gold.

NOTE: Fiddle does not have a "normal" standie attitude. The breed is usually quite compliant!

Here's a link to a hilarious but NOT SAFE FOR WORK youtube video about horse buying: http://bit.ly/GEF60q Totally made me laugh.

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--You beat me to it. From what I know of Fiddle, she would NOT have been suitable for beginner/anxious rider (!) You seem to have been able to turn her into a very good horse for yourself--but she still sounds challenging at times. I have actually never ridden or been around any "Standie", so have no knowledge there. I have to say (and some are not gonna like this) that most of the TBs I've known, off track or otherwise, were not the sort of solid personalities that make a good beginner horse.

FD said...

Beginner kid ponies are pretty commonly passed around here even well into their twenties and thirties - I know a few ponies with a 'wait list'. But for adults, people do often seem to make the mistake of going for a younger model. The other mistake that I see people make is overestimating what a kid wants to do with a pony. Your average 5-9 year old actually has a short attention span and is often just as happy bumbling around with a pony, brushing it, playing bareback games and just generally messing around. Walk, trot and the occasional short (with wellying) canter suffices for most kids in a first pony.

No heel horses here, so that's out. Ex-riding school ponies would seem to be the answer but in my experience riding schools hang onto their ponies like grim death and for good reason!
Getting to know your local pony club is usually a good idea in areas that have one. There are kids outgrowing ponies all the time and you'll get a chance to see the pony in every day life and possibly for an extended time period if you're not in a hurry. And a good DC is usually a fount of knowledge about who's selling what, the quirks they have, any history etc.
In the UK, rescues can often be a good port of call for older, been-there-done-that ponies. They may need a little tlc but supplements aren't that expensive and your kid's confidence is priceless.

This is going to sound bizarre, because it's another high-octane sport but I've found ex-polo ponies, once let down and acclimated to regular riding are pretty unflappable mounts, and as a bonus they are usually very good in company. Little bigger than I'd buy for an average kid though.

FD said...

Whoops hit post too soon - Laura, you mentioned Smokey, which made me think re your kids books post - have you tried Smokey the Cow Horse by Will James?

Also, Jessie Haas wrote some really very lovely books, but possibly a little about the reading level yet. You might like them though; beautiful imagery, and she really groks horses and riding. Dressage in particular, but riding in general too.

Laura Crum said...

FD--I have heard that polo ponies are very like team roping horses in that the older ones often make good bombproof mounts, and though I've not been around polo, this makes sense to me. All your points sound good to me--and its helpful to hear what works in the UK and Europe from you and whitehorsepilgrim, cause, yeah, I guess the team roping horse idea isn't gonna work for you guys.

I mention in the book post that "Smoky the Cowhorse" was one of MY favorite books as a child (!)
Thanks for an insightful comment, as always.

Susan said...

There are a lot of avenues for finding a broke horse. I think finding someone in the business you can trust is probably the best way for a beginner rider to go.

Linda said...

I agree. I've seen some unbelievable roping horses go for sale (word of mouth only)...they were in their late teens-early twenties and a couple were being Buted at the time, but for light riding would have made fantastic horses. They took cues on a dime and were bombproof. Hang out with cow-horse people (and old farriers) and they'll set you up.

Laura Crum said...

That's a good point, Susan. Though it can be hard for a beginner with no connections to sort out a trustworthy person.

I agree, Linda. Farriers and vets can both be good sources of leads to a solid older horse that needs a home.

horsegenes said...

One of the many things I love about rope horses is that they will stand tied for days without fussing. I love that. Doesn't sound like much but for beginners that is huge. No setting back, pawing or dancing around. No drama.

Great post loaded with tons of helpful info.

Cassie said...

I have a lot of older ladies I train for who buy giant Warmbloods then complain they're too spirited or hard to handle. They love to comment how my quarter horse reiner is so calm and easy to handle. My quarter horse has also been that way since he was 2. I wish they had listened to me and bought middle aged reiners. I found they make amazing 1st and 2nd level dressage horses and are super light. Reiners have also been shown quite a bit in hectic places so they are great travelers and are taught from day one to pack their rider along.

Laura Crum said...

horsegenes and cassie--Great insights. The tying is HUGE. And I, too, have had good luck with reiners and cowhorses.

Laura Crum said...

You know, I want to clarify something, lest anybody think I am talking down to them in this post. "Anxious re-rider" is the category in which I would put myself. Yes, I once rode pretty well. I gave it up when I got pregnant at 42. I only really started riding much again when I turned 50. I absolutely don't want to feel stressed or worried when I ride. I bought MYSELF the older been-there-done-that horse for the exact reasons I recommend such a horse for beginners and anxious re-riders. I AM an anxious re-rider. So any one reading this post should understand that I am not in any way looking down at others who have fear issues.

Alison said...

Thanks for great tips, Laura. Another way to get that bombproof horse is to buy one when you are younger and hang on to him forever. Relish and I are aging together@

Laura Crum said...

Alison--Yep. I agree. That was me and Plumber, too. But eventually he let me know he didn't like going down steep hills any more, and I had to get a new trail horse.

HorseOfCourse said...

What did Oscar Wilde say? "I am not young enough to believe I know it all" or something like that...
I totally agree with you Laura. The sad ting is that those who would benefit from this wisdom are not always listening.

Laura Crum said...

HorseOf Course--I've given up trying to convince anybody else of anything. It just doesn't work. But I have fun putting stuff out there that I've learned, and sometimes, maybe, it strikes the right person in the right way and is helpful to them. I know I've learned things by reading blogs (!)